I recently had a need to "magically" light a bonfire at a Cub event. Other recent campfires had been dramatic, but obvious in their mechanism (burning things sliding down a wire or people pushing flaming brands into the fire). I wanted something more subtle, that the Cubs wouldn't notice happening. Something I could do from a distance.
So, I turned to the electric match.
As I describe here, the electric match is quite versatile - as well as lighting campfires, you can use it to precisely trigger pyrotechnics, stage effects or model rockets.
Please be aware, though, of your local laws - in the UK, home-made pyrotechnics, solid rocket fuel or explosive mixtures are absolutely banned without special licenses.
Step 1: Materials and Tools
Electric matches are surprisingly easy to make, all you need is thin wire, a match, and some electricity.
When you research electrical matches, they will tell you that you need special nichrome wire, designed to heat up quickly., when really all you need is something thin. The more electricity you have available, the thicker the wire you can get away with.
The wire I used was a single strand from some multi-core electrical wire, the sort of stuff you buy for home electronics. I stripped it, and pulled out individual strands a few centimetres long.
You will also need tape - cheap stuff is fine, and it's better if it is clear, so can check your wiring before using the match.
Tools-wise, just use whatever you are comfortable with for cutting and stripping wire.
Step 2: A Note on Not Getting Dead.
Obviously, you'll need electricity for your electric match.
Do not plug your match directly into the mains electrical supply! This is a very efficient way to remove yourself from the gene pool, but so stupid your death wouldn't even make it to the local papers.
I used an old laboratory power pack, putting out 4VDC for the tests you see in the video, but cranked up to 8VDC for the actual event (longer wires need more voltage to push current through). If you don't have a similar device, a car or motorbike battery is ideal, as is a charger for those same batteries. In fact, the charger is probably a better idea, as you can control the match with a switch, and not by clamping things on wires (which might cause a shower of sparks and curses, giving the game away a bit).
Step 3: The Basic Make
Wherever your wire came from, all you need to do it wrap it around the head of the match.
The trick is to avoid shorting the wire, or the parts that heat up will not be near the match-head. That's where the tape comes in - when you are happy with the placement of the wire, fold a piece of tape around it.
That will fix the wire in place, and also let you see if mishandling has shifted the wire.
Step 4: More Power!
If you watch the video of the tests (step 5), you will see that a single match lit electrically will go out quite quickly. That's not a problem, if you are lighting something rather sensitive, like gunpowder or rocket fuel, but normal kindling takes a few moment to catch.
I solved this by bundling matches together. Three seemed to be a happy compromise - not too fiddly to wrap properly, but enough of a flare to keep the wood of the matches lit.
Testing with a small bundle of kindling (tumble dryer fluff) and fuel (from a model steam engine) proved the efficiency of this bundle.
Step 5: Using the Match
The electric match is not something you can just chuck under a pile of logs and watch it go. It needs preparation, just like any proper campfire.
I bundle my final versions with a mixture of highly-flammable kindlings - tumble dryer fluff, loosely-bundled tissue paper and more matches. They're packed loosely in a fold of corrugated card - this protects the match from being squashed and smothered by the weight of normal fuel stacked above. Placed in the heart of the fire, it is also surrounded by screwed-up newspaper, more than we would normally use when lighting a fire the traditional way.
I had to connect mine via about ten feet of wire (see my earlier comments about increasing voltage), running under the fuel and out to the concealed power pack. A normal extension cord ran through undergrowth to the Cub Hut, where my accomplice was ready to throw the switch.
All our Campfires start with the actual lighting of the fire, so we made a big fuss about forgetting matches, and trying to light the fire by the warmth of the welcome we got. When their shouts of "welcome to our campfire" were loud enough, the hidden accomplice threw the switch, and, with a quiet fizz, a small flame formed in the centre of the fire. The newspaper caught quickly, making a bright flame that soon ignited the normal fuel.
Unfortunately, I was unable to video the actual campfire starting (I was unable to get the appropriate legal permissions from some of the parents involved), but you will get a small idea of it from this video of my matches in action:
Enjoy, and use responsibly.
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